Signal snag made show drones go rogue

Top News | Cindy Wan 29 Oct 2018

An exhibition of drone formation flying, a key feature of this year's Wine and Dine Festival, was canceled last night because of GPS signal interference.

This came after some 40 of 100 drones went out of control and crashed into Victoria Harbour on Saturday in what was meant to be the first of two light shows on the night.

The drones had just started a seven-minute routine around 6pm after taking off from a small ship and the upset meant a second show on Saturday night could not go on.

Festival organizer the Hong Kong Tourism Board had planned five drone shows to celebrate the 10th edition of the festival at the Central Harbourfront from Thursday to yesterday.

Lighting up the harborfront while displaying words and images such as "W&D" and wine glasses, the shows on Thursday and Friday were smooth and well-received.

But on Saturday the drones suddenly deviated from the programmed route 30 seconds after going aloft. Some left the formation and flew toward Sheung Wan while others dived into the sea.

The computer system had detected an abnormality a few seconds after the drones took off, board executive director Anthony Lau Chun-hon said.

The chief operator commanded the drones to return, but there was no time to prevent many of them going awry.

Board officials alerted police, suspecting the drones had been hacked. But police all but ruled that out after experts investigated.

Officers of the force's Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau reckoned that external interference threw out the GPS signal.

Still, Lau said a probe was under way to determine if anyone should take blame.

"We're very angry as all the efforts made by the operator in the past few months have gone down the drain," he said, and the failure "disappointed citizens, tourists and affected Hong Kong's image."

Hired after a tendering exercise, drone operator Sky Magic is said to have a wealth of experience in drone shows and has been free of incidents.

Based in Singapore, Sky Magic was set up in 2015 to provide drone shows and performed at the Great Exhibition of the North in the United Kingdom in June, at Qatar National Day, Dubai World Cup horse racing in 2017 and the World Economic Forum in Abu Dhabi in 2015.

Rex Ng, a founder of Hong Kong Professional Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Association, said GPS signal interference is a common problem for drone operators.

The GPS signal receiver can be affected by mobile phones, signal towers, magnetic fields and even the weather, he said. But the festival incident was not likely to be an intentional attack, Ng said, as most of the drones landed safely.

If it was an attack, he said, the surrounding area would be affected, with phones not functioning. An attacker would also need a considerable source of electricity to operate machines that jam signals.

The flight disruption apart, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po said the festival was a success with 140,000 visitors.

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